Monday, December 29, 2008

Thousands of 'red shirts' rally to topple new Thai govt

Dec 29, 2008

Thaksin loyalists target Parliament House ahead of PM Abhisit's policy speech today

BANGKOK: - Tens of thousands of supporters of fugitive former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra rallied against new leader Abhisit Vejjajiva yesterday, threatening to engulf the kingdom in a fresh wave of political unrest.

The red-clad protesters massed a day before Mr Abhisit was due to give his maiden policy speech to Parliament, saying they would not give up until the government that came to power two weeks ago holds fresh elections.

The demonstrations bring Thai politics full circle after a year of turmoil, with Thaksin loyalists now using the same tactics that helped yellow-shirted rival protesters bring down a government led by the tycoon's allies.

Most of the protesters gathered at a central Bangkok parade ground and organisers said they would move to Parliament House overnight. An advance guard of several hundred had already blocked a key road outside the building.

'Our demand is for Abhisit to dissolve Parliament because he has no legitimacy,' said Mr Jatuporn Prompan, a core leader of the pro-Thaksin movement, whose supporters are known as the 'red shirts'.

Police said that more than 20,000 protesters had gathered while organisers said the figure was 50,000. More than 3,000 unarmed riot police were on duty, handing out leaflets urging peaceful protests.

A huge stage at the parade ground near the royal palace was backed with a red banner saying 'No confidence in Abhisit Vejjajiva', while protesters waved signs saying 'We Love Thaksin' and shook plastic foot-shaped clappers.

'Today the fight is not only for Thaksin but also for justice and democracy,' former foreign minister Noppadon Pattama told the crowd.

Thaksin was ousted in a military coup in 2006 and remains in exile to avoid a jail sentence for corruption. Organisers said he might make a telephone address to the rally.

Oxford-educated Abhisit, the head of the Democrat Party, won a parliamentary vote to become Prime Minister on Dec 15, less than two weeks after a court dissolved the former ruling People Power Party that was loyal to Thaksin.

That verdict followed months of protests by the royalist and anti-Thaksin People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) that blockaded Bangkok's airports earlier this month, causing huge damage to the economy.

The 44-year-old Abhisit - Thailand's third premier in four months - said he would give his policy statement as planned today and tomorrow.

'We will not fight with anyone. After the next two days everything will be fine,' Mr Abhisit told reporters.

Pro-Thaksin protest organiser Nattawut Saikuar said he could 'confirm that we will not seal off Parliament tomorrow', but there were tensions when about 1,000 demonstrators set up a second stage outside Parliament House yesterday.

Mr Warong Dechgitvigrom, a spokesman for the ruling Democrat Party, said party representatives would go together to Parliament this morning and if it was blocked they would return to party headquarters. He said the government did not plan to force its way into the building.

Mr Abhisit told news agency Agence France-Presse on Friday that he had ordered police to avoid a repeat of clashes at Parliament on Oct 7, when antiThaksin protesters tried to stop then-premier Somchai Wongsawat, Thaksin's brother-in-law, from delivering his policy speech.

The violence left two people dead and 500 wounded.

'Police will not use violence against the protesters,' said national police chief General Patcharawat Wongsuwan.

The protests come as Mr Abhisit faces a raft of problems ranging from Thailand's stuttering economy to the enormous divide between pro- and anti-Thaksin forces.

He has vowed a 'grand plan of reconciliation' but has caused controversy by appointing a vocal supporter of the PAD's airport blockade as his new foreign minister.

Twice-elected Thaksin is still loathed by the Bangkok-based elite in the military, palace and bureaucracy, who backed the PAD and see Thaksin as corrupt, authoritarian and a threat to their traditional power base.

But his populist policies won him huge support among the urban and rural poor, especially in his native north and north-east, where many of yesterday's protesters hailed from.


[What's good for the goose, is good for the gander. But I won't be surprised if there is a crackdown on these protesters because they are wearing the wrong colour shirt.]

Faces behind the financial headlines

Dec 29, 2008

Ann Williams looks back at the people who made the news in a year when Wall Street giants collapsed, millions lost their jobs and the global economy tumbled into recession

Jerome Kerviel
Societe Generale trader

IN RETROSPECT, after the financial meltdown and all the revelations about the events of 2008, what Kerviel did seems almost quaint.

In January, the 31-year-old Societe Generale (SG) trader was charged with illegally racking up five billion euros (S$10 billion) in losses after placing derivatives bets worth more than US$50 billion (S$72 billion).

It was then the largest fraud in history, dwarfing the &pound827 million (S$1.8 billion) lost by Nick Leeson, who brought down British bank Barings in 1995.

SG said Kerviel was a rogue trader and claimed he worked alone and without its authorisation. Kerviel, in turn, told investigators that such practices were widespread and that getting a profit made the bosses turn a blind eye.

Angelo Mozilo
Former CEO, Countrywide

THE growing business of turning mortgages into bundles of saleable securities prompted lenders to give virtually anyone a loan that they could resell at a profit while offloading the risk.

It also gave them incentive to mislead borrowers about what they could afford, what risks they were undertaking and, in some cases, the terms of the mortgage they were signing.

The poster boy of this racket was Mr Angelo Mozilo, a butcher's son, who built Countrywide into the largest United States mortgage lender.

Countrywide was among the biggest providers of high-risk sub-prime mortgages. But many others got into the game, as well. Sub-prime lending shot up from US$130 billion in 2000 to US$625 billion (S$904 billion) in 2005.

Mr Mozilo also became a symbol of Wall Street greed. Even as his business crumbled, he made US$121.5 million from cashing in his stock options.

Alan Greenspan
Former Fed chairman

THE US central bank's job, as one of Mr Greenspan's predecessors famously said, is to remove the punch bowl once the party really gets going.

As Fed chairman during the housing bubble, Mr Greenspan spiked the bowl instead, by keeping interest rates low and shunning regulation that let Wall Street bankers indulge in reckless risk-taking and greed.

In 2000, he rejected a proposal to examine the lending practices of banks and mortgage brokers. He also shrugged off suggestions that the ballooning market for exotic securities, known as derivatives, needed greater scrutiny. Perhaps most importantly, he never saw or warned that something was terribly amiss.

In testimony before Congress in October, a shaken Mr Greenspan said his faith in the self-correcting nature of free markets was misplaced. The admission came too late.

Richard Fuld
Former CEO of Lehman Brothers

THANKS to the economic meltdown, we now know that the decade's financial superstars walked off with huge bonuses they 'earned' by reckless risk-taking.

Wall Street firms created bundles of sub-prime mortgages and other toxic financial instruments, then peddled them as low-risk, high-return investments. These securities, and enormous side bets on them, fuelled the housing bubble and infected the global financial system.

Nearly all the big investment banks were culpable but Mr Fuld, who received as much as US$480 million (S$694 million) in compensation from 2000 to this year, receives special mention for taking risks that drove his 158-year-old institution into the ground.

Other banking titans whose names have been tarnished include Mr Jimmy Cayne of Bear Stearns, Mr Chuck Prince of Citigroup, Mr Stan O'Neal of Merrill Lynch and Sir Fred Goodwin of Royal Bank of Scotland.

Henry Paulson
US Treasury Secretary

MAKING the rounds of e-mail inboxes is a parody featuring Mr Paulson as the author of a Nigerian e-mail scam. 'I am ministry of the Treasury of the Republic of America,' his message begins. 'My country has had crisis that has caused the need for large transfer of funds of 700 billion dollars US.

As point man, he has been the rather shamefaced public face of the Bush administration's plan to bail out the financial system.

He has been slammed for the bailout's changing focus and ad-hoc execution. He first argued that the money was desperately and immediately needed to buy troubled assets from financial institutions, then, he said it would not.

Instead, the Treasury used most of the first round of bailout money to invest directly in banks and lenders. The result: a government that seemed to be lurching from one tactic to the next with no coherent overall plan.

Ben Bernanke
Fed chairman

HIS reputation looks to have survived the crisis much better than Mr Paulson's.

At Princeton University, where Mr Bernanke taught economics for many years, he was known for his retiring manner and his statistics-laden research on the Great Depression.

But the growing financial crisis has forced him to intervene on Wall Street in ways never before imagined. He has slashed interest rates, established new lending programmes, extended hundreds of billions of dollars to troubled financial firms, bought debt issued by companies and even taken distressed mortgage assets onto the Fed's books.

The predictable scholar is now engaged in the boldest use of the Fed's authority since its inception in 1913.

Gordon Brown
British Prime Minister

JUST weeks before the fall of Lehman Brothers, he was being compared by newspaper cartoonists to 'Mr Bean'. Trailing badly in opinion polls, the bulky, charisma-free British leader appeared to be on the way out.

Now, he has been so widely praised for his leadership on the global financial crisis that an American political cartoon shows workers carving his face into Mount Rushmore.

His pioneering rescue plan for British banks was copied by the US and other governments.

More recently back home, his hero status has come under fire with opposition leaders now blasting him for created the mess in the first place with policies that encouraged banks to take risks.

Karthik Rajaram
Unemployed financial adviser

ON OCT 4, in Los Angeles, Karthik Rajaram, 45, shot his wife, mother-in- law and three sons before turning the gun on himself.

In a suicide note, he wrote that he was broke, having incurred massive stock market losses in the financial meltdown.

In Akron, Ohio, 90-year-old Addie Polk shot herself as sheriff's deputies tried to evict her from her foreclosed home.

These are but two of many tragic stories worldwide in a terrible year that has seen millions lose their homes, their money and their jobs.

Alan Mulally, Rick Wagoner
and Robert Nardelli
CEOs of America's car giants

LESSON learnt: When visiting Congress to beg for money, leave the private jets at home.

Ford's Mr Alan Mulally, General Motors' Mr Rick Wagoner and Chrysler's Mr Robert Nardelli were publicly castigated by lawmakers last month for flying to Washington in separate corporate jets to plead for a US$38 billion (S$55 billion) government bailout.

A month later, the Detroit Three made the same trip, this time in fuel- efficient cars. GM and Chrysler got US$17.4 billion in government-backed loans while Ford said it had enough cash for now.

Bernard Madoff
Investment manager

FITTINGLY, a year that began with Jerome Kerviel ends with Madoff, 70. As the Irish Independent newspaper put it yesterday, the whole world now seems like one big Ponzi scheme.

Madoff, a former chairman of Nasdaq, confessed earlier this month that his investment company was just 'one big lie' and that he had defrauded investors for decades.

As much as US$50 billion (S$72 billion) may have evaporated in his giant Ponzi or pyramid scam, a swindle offering unusually high returns, with early investors paid off with money from later investors.

The architect of history's biggest fraud depended on so many others to perpetuate his crimes that his downfall can be seen as an indictment of our time.

Hedge funds and banks earned big fees just channelling their rich clients' money to Madoff's Ponzi scheme; regulators received formal complaints but took no action.

A family's mortgage nightmare

Dec 29, 2008

How one family's mortgage is linked to meltdown

HAMPTON BAYS (New York) - MRS Cynthia Goldrick's daughter is in and out of the hospital for brain surgery, her mother has Stage 4 lung cancer and her father has moved into a home for the elderly.

So when the Goldrick family's adjustable rate mortgage reset while husband Patrick was off work for a job-related injury, it eliminated the thin margin between their income and the mortgage payment and put them on the road to foreclosure.

While these circumstances may seem extreme - a perfect storm of bad luck - the basic economics of a hike in mortgage rates and a bank's inability or unwillingness to modify terms have been shared by many Americans over the past year.

The Goldricks took out a $375,000 (S$542,000) mortgage in 2005, when they refinanced a previous mortgage on their 1,800-square-foot (167-square-metre) house in semirural Hampton Bays, some 90 miles (150km) east of New York city.

At first, the interest rate was 6.5 per cent and the monthly payment was US$2,370. After two years, it rose to 9.5 per cent and suddenly the payment of US$3,850 was beyond the means of a family living off Mr Patrick Goldrick's salary as a cable guy.

Appraised at US$605,000 in 2005, the house today is surrounded by others with 'For Sale' signs out front and is probably worth less than the outstanding loan.

It is also the only home the Goldrick children have known.

'It's just walls. But this is where my daughter comes home after surgery, so they're comfortable walls,' Mrs Cynthia Goldrick said.

The loan was granted by Rose Mortgage Inc of New Jersey and is being serviced by Saxon Mortgage Services, a unit of Morgan Stanley.

But the mortgage is in the hands of neither because it was securitised, pooled with US$700 million worth of mortgages into an investment vehicle created by Morgan Stanley known as IXIS 2005-HE4, and sold to investors.

Such pools constitute much of the so-called toxic assets at the heart of the worst financial crisis in the United States since the 1930s.

Today's investors in IXIS 2005-HE4 include Prudential Insurance, Pimco Advisors, Western Asset Management and Legg Mason - institutions that manage money for the wealthy and the population at large.

Not just a house but a home
'We didn't jump on the refinancing bandwagon to take a cruise or buy a Mercedes,' Mrs Cynthia Goldrick said. 'We refinanced to give my child a life, not a lifestyle, but a life.'

The Goldricks' 10-year-old daughter, Erin, has had 10 operations for hydrocephalus, a Chiari malformation and spina bifida. Most of the medical bills are paid by insurance and a fund established from the settlement of a malpractice suit over Erin's treatment as a baby.

Erin is an honour student who would have made high honours but for a score of 83 in dance. She bears little outward sign of her medical history, unless she pulls up her hair to show scars on her neck and an open wound on her scalp. She looks after her little sister, Emily, 6, and their room is decorated by dozens of stuffed animals.

But her constant medical needs prevent Cynthia from going back to work. 'How can you go to work when your daughter's on the operating table?' Cynthia said.

At one point, the Goldricks considered selling their home and moving to a larger and cheaper one in North Carolina, but that would separate Erin from the doctors who have been treating her since she was 2.

So they enlisted the services of Mr Sal Pane, president of AmeriMod, a company specialising in modifying mortgages, a process in which banks agree to lower mortgage payments and interest rates to avoid the cost of foreclosures.

'Modifications can save this economy,' Mr Pane said. 'My company could do 60,000 loan modifications a month with our current staffing. Give us government assistance and I can modify the entire country in a year.' But modification efforts have encountered difficulties.

Increasingly, people are falling behind on loans that have already been modified and regulators warn the trend may worsen.

Of all the modifications made in the first quarter, 55 per cent were at least 30 days delinquent after six months, according to a government report.

Then there are the rights of bondholders - the financial institutions that invest in mortgage-backed securities like the pool that contains the Goldrick mortgage.

While modification advocates say it is better for investors to accept a lower rate of return rather than nothing, bondholders don't see much benefit if modifications just delay an inevitable foreclosure.

Moreover, some securitisations prohibit modifications, as is the case with the pool containing the Goldrick mortgage.

Such clauses are meant to protect bondholders - sometimes a hedge fund, sometimes a pension fund - who have been guaranteed a certain return.

So even though the Goldricks could afford to stay in their home if the interest rate was 6.5 per cent, and the bondholders would benefit by continuing to receive income on the loan rather than have it stuck in foreclosure, the servicer of the loan - Saxon - cannot budge.

'Your loan modification request has been denied because the investor does not allow modifications for this loan. We apologise for any inconvenience,' a Saxon customer service representative wrote to AmeriMod on Dec 19.

Saxon referred inquiries on the Goldrick mortgage to its parent, Morgan Stanley, which declined to comment.

Despite the notice, Mr Pane vowed to continue fighting to modify the loan, citing the extraordinary circumstances of the Goldrick family and a clerical error that put the Goldricks further into arrears when a payment to cover property taxes was credited to the wrong account.

Pool rules
Back in 2005, the securitisation pool containing the Goldrick mortgage looked like a safe bet for fixed-income investors. Fitch Ratings gave the senior debt in that pool a grade of AAA - a rating it maintains to this day - and Fitch said 80 per cent of the AAA bonds have been repaid in full.

The lower-rated debt in the pool has not fared as well, resulting in multiple downgrades.

Three years after the deal closed, 24.3 per cent of what is left in the fund is in foreclosure and another 13.1 per cent delinquent by at least 30 days, according to November data on Morgan Stanley's website.

And 2005 was still a pretty good year. Mortgage bonds from 2006 and 2007 are even more 'distressed'. Until the credit crisis blew up in 2007, Wall Street institutions were piling into mortgage-backed securities. It was dominated by Lehman Brothers, which has since collapsed, and Bear Stearns, which was sold to JPMorgan Chase & Co in an emergency deal.

Investment banks were making 1.25 to 1.35 per cent on securitisations, which would mean a profit of US$875,000 to US$945,000 on a US$700 million pool.

'That doesn't sound like a lot, but mortgage markets are so big there's a lot of profitability,' said Brad Hintz a securities industry analyst for Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.

Firms were in frenzied competition for market share at a time when mortgage companies were handing out easy credit.

Now, that bubble has burst and new issues of securitized mortgages have come to a halt. Investors are buying mortgage bonds at a steep discount on the secondary market.

'Distressed yields are on the order of 15 to 20 per cent, so people are kind of responding to that,' said JPMorgan analyst Chris Flanagan.

For example, Mr Whitney Tilson, founder of the hedge fund T2 Partners LLC, said he was betting that losses on underlying loans won't be as bad as the market expects. In other words, enough people will continue to make their mortgage payments.

'For the first time in our 10-year history we are buying distressed debt, and we are selling equities to do it,' Mr Tilson told the Reuters Investment Outlook Summit earlier this month.

But that won't help the Goldricks, who like many other families are in danger of losing their house and not likely to benefit from the US$700 billion that Congress has allocated to Wall Street for bailing out financial institutions.

'I am absolutely bitter,' said Mr Patrick Goldrick, who sees the scandal surrounding investment advisor Bernard Madoff as further evidence of Wall Street wrongdoing.

'I am bitter towards Congress and bitter towards the big banks and the creepy billionaires who get away with stealing pensions.

'I just don't even listen anymore. I turn it off. It's all bad news.' -- REUTERS

[A case study of the families affected by the financial crisis.]

Saturday, December 27, 2008


Dec 27, 2008

ONE word best describes 2008: drama. There was drama in the economy, drama on the stock market, drama in Parliament, drama at the Olympics and even drama when you took a peek at your electricity bill. Of course, the top provider of drama this year was the economy.

At the start of the year, the big issue was rising prices. Fast forward a few short months, and a global economic crisis has everyone thinking fondly of the inflation.

But one event that gave a strong boost to Singapore's spirit was the drama at the International Court of Justice in the Netherlands. Singaporeans, however, had to sweat for two hours, listening to the 16-judge panel set out its arguments, before they heard the good news: Singapore had been given sovereignty over Pedra Branca.

2008 was also a year of loss. MP Ong Chit Chung, 59, died suddenly. Also unexpected was the death of opposition stalwart J.B. Jeyaretnam, 82, who had made his political comeback earlier this year.

The event that probably produced the heaviest drama early in the year was the escape of terrorist leader Mas Selamat Kastari from a detention centre here.

Beyond Singapore, events unfolded that made Singaporeans realise more than ever how interconnected they are to the rest of the world. Dramatic political changes in the United States, Thailand and Malaysia also meant a busy year for those managing Singapore's foreign relations.

With all this drama, especially on the economic front, it is with a wary step that Singaporeans enter 2009. But before that, Insight takes one last look at 2008.

1. Hide and seek

IT SPARKED a thorough review of the Internal Security Department's (ISD) operations, raised questions about officers being overworked, was at the centre of oh-so-many debates in Parliament, backed up traffic at the land borders, saw the launch of the largest-ever manhunt in Singapore, and spawned numerous jokes about going to toilet and not coming back.

By some distance, the escape of Jemaah Islamiah leader Mas Selamat Kastari on Feb 27 was the year's biggest political story.No one is sure of the exact path he took to escape or the number of pants he was wearing, but a re-creation by the Home Affairs Ministry had him out of the high-security detention centre at Whitley Road in just 49 seconds. He had been left alone for 11 minutes.

To get out, he probably took advantage of a string of security lapses and human errors, including a toilet window with no grilles, guards who failed in their duties and CCTV cameras that were not recording.

When presenting the details in Parliament in April, Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng, who is also Home Affairs Minister, said the 'mistakes have turned out to be so simple as to appear silly and incredible'.

As a result, nine people - from the Gurkha guards up to the supervising officer in the ISD - were sacked, relieved of their appointments or disciplined.

The punishments themselves sparked a debate over accountability and where the buck should stop.

In the days following the escape, every mobile phone in Singapore received a picture and short description of Mas Selamat, which included the fact that he limped.

Soon, calls were coming in from everywhere of sightings, some of which were quite inaccurate.One call led to a Bangladeshi tourist - in Singapore to seek medical treatment for an injured leg - receiving a shock visit from several police officers at his flat.

Later in the year, a $1 million bounty was placed on the fugitive's head by private donors. Three men quit their private sector jobs to hunt him down.

Mas Selamat might be out of sight but he is one person who won't be out of Singaporeans' minds.

2. Shuffle and leap

IN A year when the Cabinet reshuffle was incremental, one big appointment stood out: Mr K. Shanmugam moved from the backbench to a prominent position on the front bench. The MP and Senior Counsel was appointed Law Minister and Second Minister for Home Affairs.

It marked the first time in 23 years that an MP had made such a leap. The last time was in 1985, when Dr Richard Hu became Trade and Industry Minister one month after he had been elected an MP.

Other changes included Dr Ng Eng Hen's move from the Manpower Ministry to the Education Ministry, with Minister of State for Manpower Gan Kim Yong stepping into the gap as Acting Manpower Minister.

The reshuffle also saw five Ministers of State promoted to Senior Ministers of State, including Mr Gan. The others were: Mrs Lim Hwee Hua, Mr S. Iswaran, Ms Grace Fu and Rear-Admiral (NS) Lui Tuck Yew. First-term MP Teo Ser Luck moved up from Parliamentary Secretary to Senior Parliamentary Secretary.

The changes were well received, with Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong noting that the slow and steady approach allows younger ministers to be tried out gradually.

3. At The Bar I: At The Hague

A 30-YEAR bone - or rather, rock - of contention between neighbours was finally resolved in May when the International Court of Justice ruled that Pedra Branca belonged to Singapore.

Malaysia did not come away empty-handed though, as the court awarded it the nearby Middle Rocks. Who owns a third maritime feature, South Ledge, is being worked out by the two countries.

The reading of the verdict took two hours, with Singaporeans watching via a live telecast from The Hague. It was not the most entertaining television, but it had its audience rapt.

The first half made for terrible viewing for Singaporeans, as the court listed why Malaysia had the original title to Pedra Branca, contrary to Singapore's argument that it was no man's land. Then, about halfway through, the tone switched and it was the Malaysians' turn to twitch in their seats as the verdict seemed to swing in Singapore's favour.

In the end, the island, home to the Horsburgh Lighthouse since 1851, was awarded to Singapore because Malaysia had not protested against Singapore's activity there until it was too late.

4. At The Bar II: In Singapore

THE Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) - its leaders as well as several members and supporters - indisputably made up the most regular non-lawyer visitors to court this year.

Whether it was for illegal assemblies, speaking in public without a permit, contempt of court or defamation, they were there to face charges.

In one instance, three people who went to court to watch a hearing were found guilty of having committed an offence by wearing T-shirts that depicted a kangaroo dressed in a judge's robes. The three refused to apologise for their act and were jailed.

The hearing they attended in May was one that captured unprecedented public attention. All eyes were on the courts as they sought to assess damages in a defamation suit won by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew against the SDP, its secretary-general Chee Soon Juan and his sister Chee Siok Chin.

The hearing drew huge crowds, who queued outside the Supreme Court building before it opened, keen to see the Chee siblings cross-examine the PM and the MM.

In the end, Justice Belinda Ang awarded the Lees $950,000 in damages. If the SDP fails to pay its share of the sum, the party could be wound up.

That was just one of the many times the Chees were in court this year. They were also there on trial as part of a group of 19 who had been charged with illegal assembly.

The year also saw the courts acting to defend their integrity from attack.

Apart from the kangaroo T-shirt case, the Attorney-General's Chambers launched contempt of court proceedings against Dow Jones Publishing (Asia) for three articles that alleged bias and lack of independence on the part of the Singapore judiciary. The publisher was fined $25,000.

In another case, former Singaporean lawyer Gopalan Nair was taken to task for writing a blog that had accused Justice Ang of 'prostituting' herself to the MM and PM during the assessment of damages hearing. Mr Nair, a US citizen who flew to Singapore to attend the trial, had also challenged the Government to arrest him. He was jailed three months for insulting a public servant.

Now back in the US, he has retracted the apologies and statements made against the judiciary and a judge in another case, and repeated the criticisms that got him into trouble in the first place.

5. Newest hot spot in town

ON SEPT 1, Ms Nithya Sree, dressed as an abused maid, sat in a chair in Hong Lim Park wearing a neck brace and an arm sling. Beside her, fellow activist Mike Goh gave a short speech while others handed out leaflets about maid abuse.

The event lasted 10 minutes - but it was a landmark few minutes.

The event was the first legal outdoor protest in Singapore in 20 years, made possible because of a loosening of restrictions at Speakers' Corner.

In his National Day Rally Speech, PM Lee announced that outdoor protests would be allowed at the park, and that the National Parks Board, not the police, would see to events held there.

Response to the opening up has been mixed, with some applauding it as a big step forward and others saying it wasn't enough.

Still others, such as Mr Lau Su How, who had opened a cafe at the nearby community centre, hoped protests would bring more business.

The opening up certainly brought new life to the area, with meetings taking place almost every weekend.

The events there have ranged from rallies by investors who bought products linked to failed US investment bank Lehman Brothers, to a memorial for late opposition figure J.B. Jeyaretnam, to an event for parents to match-make their children.

6. Tears of joy, and sadness

FOR the first time, a rescheduled TV show made front page news. Of course, this was no ordinary show: It was the telecast of the National Day Rally.

The rally itself would go ahead, but the telecast was pushed back a day so it would not clash with the Olympic table tennis final between Singapore and China.

The game was history-making as it would determine whether Singapore's first Olympic medal in 48 years would be a gold or a silver. Though the Chinese won, everyone was delighted Singapore finally had another medal.

PM Lee interrupted his speech to send his congratulations to the team.

Still, a stunning announcement barely a week later put a damper on things. Table Tennis Association president Lee Bee Wah, an MP, said the services of team manager Anthony Lee were no longer required. Also, a committee would decide the future of head coach Liu Guodong.

Singapore's top male paddler Gao Ning had found himself with no coach by his side for his third-round singles match. He crashed out to a much lower-ranked Croatian, proving the importance of having someone yell at you from the sidelines. Gao was left crushed and in tears.

This slip-up triggered an angry response from Ms Lee, hence the big changes.Her news, in turn, sparked anger among fans and the team, with many accusing her of poor timing.

She would later apologise for it.

Mr Liu ultimately turned down a new deal, declining to extend his contract beyond the end of this year.

7. New media rising

NOT only did new media matters grab more headlines in old media than ever before, but the influence of new media began to catch the attention of governments in Singapore and elsewhere.

In Singapore, a much-anticipated report by a government-appointed council looking into the impact of new media was released this month. The council took a year of study and a further six weeks of public consultation before releasing a 224-page final report.

One major change pitched by the Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media on Society was the lifting of the outright ban on party political films. The council recommended doing it in stages, with the films requiring the approval of a panel in the first stage.

Whether the proposal gets the nod will be known when the Government responds to the report early next year.

As was the case with the announcement allowing protests, some hailed the move while others said it wasn't enough.

Still, there are signs of further opening up. A film documenting the protest at Speakers' Corner during the 2006 World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings was passed by the censors.

No less significant is howhappenings elsewhere have raised questions in Singapore about the extent to which new media will affect the country's politics.

The big part it played in the US polls last month and the shock outcome in the Malaysian general election in March prompted multiple seminars and talks on whether such scenarios might be repeated in Singapore.

The one point that broke through was that new media cannot be ignored.

8. Money, money, money

IN SOME quarters, the colour of PM Lee's shirt at the National Day Rally was a good indicator of the times.

Last year, when the economy was booming, he wore a bluish-green shirt that was cheerfully bright. This year, the shirt was grey.

Little wonder too, as the economic turmoil has unleashed many difficult problems for political leaders.

At the start of the year, rising costs were the big issue, with the price of everything from fuel to rice to a cuppa going up. In March, inflation in Singapore hit a 26-year high of 7.5 per cent.

Right up to the National Day Rally, inflation was top of the agenda. PM Lee, in his speech, reassured Singaporeans the Government was on top of the problem.

He announced that the Government would spend more than $3 billion to help defray the higher cost of living. The money would be used to fund measures such as a goods and services tax offset package, Budget 2008 surplus sharing, and a Workfare Income Supplement Scheme to boost the earnings of low-wage workers and Central Provident Fund savings.

In addition, the National Wages Council urged employers who could afford it to give workers a one-off inflation bonus.

But the problem of inflation would be overshadowed in September when US investment bank Lehman Brothers collapsed. That marked the start of a crisis that would spread like wildfire across the globe.

In Singapore, the first casualties were investments linked to Lehman Brothers. About 10,000 retail investors had pumped more than $500 million into structured products linked to the bankrupt bank. Eight town councils had also put money into those toxic investments and could lose about $16 million.

Although the People's Action Party argued that the sum amounted to just a fraction of the total sinking fund managed by all its 14 town councils, it acknowledged that it was understandable for residents to be upset.

In an interview with The Straits Times earlier this month, Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan assured Singaporeans the sinking fund was well managed, adding that this was a year when even the best of investors would have lost money.

Then came retrenchments, with DBS Bank and Neptune Orient Lines among the first few to cut staff.

The Government swiftly rolled out a slew of measures to help temper the effects of the global crisis.

First, in October, it guaranteed all local and foreign currency deposits in banks, to ensure spooked clients did not move their funds to safer pastures.

To help stave off retrenchments, it started a $600 million training package that would give higher subsidiesfor course fees, as well as pay up to 90 per cent of a worker's salary during the training period.

The Government also pledged $2.3 billion to help businesses gain access to credit.

Finally, the Finance Ministry announced the Budget would be out in January, almost a month earlier than normal. Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam promised the Budget would pay special attention to businesses and families hit by the downturn.

Like many people, top civil servants and ministers saw their pay packages shrink as bonuses dived. An increment in their pay, scheduled for early next year, was shelved.

More challenges lie ahead, but Mr Tharman did sound an optimistic note when he spoke about the coming Budget.

'We have accumulated surpluses over this term of government which we didn't spend entirely in this year's Budget,' he said. 'We think we will come out of the tunnel in good shape.'

10 days that shook 2008

Dec 27, 2008

This has been a year like no other: 12 months of mayhem and never-ending crises that shredded nerves, destroyed wealth and shook the business and financial sector unlike anything since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Alvin Foo recounts 10 eventful days that we won't forget

1 Jan 2, Asian market meltdown

ASIAN stock markets were battered, with Singapore plunging 187.1 points, or 6 per cent, its worst one-day fall since October 1987.

Similar carnage struck the region with Hong Kong's Hang Seng Index suffering its biggest fall since the Sept 11, 2001 terror attacks.

Traders blamed it on hedge funds trimming their positions across the region and intensifying fears of a US economic recession.

A day later, the US Federal Reserve slashed interest rates to try to stop the global rout.

It worked, as Asia's stocks rallied sharply in reaction, with the Hang Seng Index soaring 10.7 per cent in its biggest one-day point gain ever.

The turbulence was so great that equity experts dubbed that week as the 'five days that shook the market'.

2 March 16, Bear Stearns bailout

WALL Street and the rest of the world felt the year's first major financial tremor when Bear Stearns, the fifth-largest investment bank, faced near-collapse.

Bear Stearns had invested heavily in US sub-prime mortgage instruments and other securities, which had fallen sharply in value.

It survived - sort of - when the US Federal Reserve stepped in to facilitate a fire sale to JP Morgan.

The crisis also sparked fears and rumours that Lehman Brothers might also be in financial trouble and sent stock markets down sharply.

In late May, Bear Stearns vanished into Wall Street history when its shareholders approved its sale to JP Morgan at US$10 a share. A year earlier it was trading as high as US$170 a share.

3 July 3, oil hits almost US$150

THE price of black gold soared to a record US$147 a barrel that day, fuelled by a larger-than-expected fall in US stockpiles and the threat of conflict with Iran.

The slumping US dollar and speculation from hedge funds further aided oil's dizzying rise and prompted a Goldman Sachs analyst to forecast that crude could hit US$200 in the next two years.

But fears of shrinking demand caused by a global recession have sent oil plunging to near US$30 earlier this month - its lowest level in five years.

The retreat has brought a smile to consumers and businesses but the the good times may not last for long, as the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries has promised sharp supply cuts to push oil back to US$75.

4 Sept 7, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac rescued

US MORTGAGE giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were handed a lifeline by the US government, which committed up to US$200 billion (S$290 billion) to boost the much-needed capital the pair failed to get from private investors.

The government also offered to buy back mortgage-backed securities and to provide Fannie and Freddie with a liquidity support facility of unlimited size.

Their failure was not an option, as they own or guarantee almost half of the country's US$12 trillion home mortgage debt.

US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said they were 'so large and so interwoven in our financial system that a failure of either of them would cause great turmoil in our financial markets here at home and around the globe'.

Asian financial institutions and central banks - especially in Japan and China - hold billions of dollars worth of debt securities issued by both firms.

So the bailout brought lots of cheer to the region, with investors propelling markets from Tokyo to Singapore to their best showing in months.

5 Sept 15, Lehman Brothers goes under, Merrill Lynch sold

A FINANCIAL tsunami was sparked when Lehman Brothers - a 158-year-old Wall Street stalwart and the fourth-largest US investment bank - was brought to its knees by the sub-prime mortgage crisis.

Facing a mountain of debts, it filed for bankruptcy protection that fateful day - making it the biggest such filing in history.

Hours later, the third-biggest investment bank, Merrill Lynch, sought refuge in a US$50 billion takeover by Bank of America (BoA), shocking analysts worldwide.

Merrill, a venerable 94-year-old Wall Street institution, agreed to sell itself to BoA for US$29 a share in an all-stock deal.

These events created shockwaves around the world and sent stock markets into free fall as investors fled to the safety of government bonds and gold.

Even investors in Singapore were not spared. Hundreds of people here, including housewives and retirees, had invested in structured products linked to Lehman.

Most have seen their savings largely diminished. Even eight town councils here had about $16 million invested in troubled structured products, which included Minibonds linked to Lehman.

6 Sept 17, AIG nearly collapses

ANOTHER instance of the financial crisis hitting Singapore's shores came when troubled US insurer AIG American came to the brink of bankruptcy after ratings agencies cut its debt ratings.

That forced the already cash-strapped firm to immediately raise a further US$14.5 billion to cover its obligations.

Scores of Singaporean policyholders besieged AIA's customer service centre in Finlayson Green to surrender their insurance policies and get their money back.

But disaster was averted a day later, when the US government intervened with a US$85 billion rescue loan, saying the insurer's failure could hurt already stressed financial markets and the economy.

Back home, AIA Singapore also assured policyholders that it has enough funds to meet its obligations.

It also moved with the Monetary Authority of Singapore to calm fears that AIG was so short of ready cash that it would reduce the capital of its subsidiaries or tap into its booming Asian operations for cash.

The panic has since eased.

7 Oct 27, Bloody October

STOCK markets, especially those in Asia, were savaged in late October.

The carnage was especially bad on Oct 27, when investors dumped regional stocks on fears that government action would not be enough to stave off a deep global recession.

Hong Kong's Hang Seng Index saw its biggest drop since 1997, while Japan's Nikkei 225 index plunged to a 26-year low.

In Singapore, $123.5 billion was erased from the market value of stocks that month, with the Straits Times Index plunging as low as 1,473 points.

According to financial information provider Standard & Poor's Index Services, world equity markets registered their worst month in history, as investors lost an estimated US$5.79 trillion in that time.

8 Dec 1, US officially in recession

ARGUABLY the world's worst-kept secret was confirmed when the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) - a private, non-profit research body - concluded that the US has been in recession since December last year.

The last time the US was in a recession was in 2001, and this would make it the longest contraction since 1982. If the recession lasts for five more months, it will become the most lengthy since the Great Depression.

Unusually, the NBER does not define a recession as two straight quarters of shrinking economic output. Instead, it looks for a decline in economic activity, spread across the economy, and lasting more than a few months.

Some economists predict that the US economy will contract by as much as 5 per cent in the current fourth quarter.

The US joined other economies officially in recession, including Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, New Zealand, Ireland, Italy, Germany and Britain.

The euro region and Japan both fell into a slump in the second quarter of this year, making it the first simultaneous recession in all three regions in the post-war era.

9 Dec 11, Madoff scandal

INVESTORS big and small were rocked when top Wall Street broker Bernard Madoff was arrested and charged with fraud in one of the biggest-ever such cases.

This allegedly involved a loss of up to US$50 billion in cash and securities.

The ex-Nasdaq chairman was accused of running a 'giant Ponzi scheme' - a pyramid scheme in which early investors are paid their promised high returns with money pulled in from newer investors.

Big names caught in the scam included Britain's Royal Bank of Scotland, HSBC Holdings and Man Group, France's BNP Paribas, Spain's Grupo Santander and Switzerland's Union Bancaire Privee and Benbassat & Cie.

Even local insurer Great Eastern Holdings said it has $64 million of indirect exposure to Madoff's funds.

Earlier this week, a French fund manager who lost more than US$1 billion of his clients' money in the scam committed suicide at his Manhattan office.

10 Dec 16, Fed cuts interest rate to near zero

THE US Federal Reserve made an unprecedented move, cutting its target rate for overnight loans between banks to the lowest level since it started publishing the target in 1990.

The Fed slashed rates from 1 per cent to a target range of zero to 0.25 per cent, and said it would keep rates 'exceptionally low' for some time.

With no room to cut rates further, the spotlight has now shifted to stimulus packages, particularly the ambitious one being drawn up by US President-elect Barack Obama.

Economists expect the Fed to expand its purchases of assets to enlarge its balance sheet. This could include buying corporate debt or state municipal bonds to ease the credit squeeze in those markets.

However, they also warn that the near-zero interest rate could push the US into a liquidity trap like the one experienced by Japan in the 1990s, when the economy simply refused to respond to rate cuts.

No breakfast, earlier sex

Dec 26, 2008

TOKYO - THERE are many theories on the links between food and sex, but Japanese researchers have came up with a new finding - young people who skip breakfast tend to lose their virginity earlier.

In a study of 3,000 people, those who did not regularly eat breakfast when in their early teens said they lost their virginity at an average age of 17.5, versus an overall average of age 19 for all Japanese.

For those who had a morning meal when they were younger, the average age of having the first sexual experience was 19.4.

The study, backed by Japan's health ministry, was aimed at finding ways to curb unwanted pregnancies. It concluded that a stable home life discouraged early sex.

'Those unhappy with their parents - such as for not preparing breakfast - may tend to find a way to release their frustration by having sex,' said Kunio Kitamura, head of the Japan Family Planning Association who led the research.

'If children don't feel comfortable in their family environment, they tend to go out,' he told AFP.

Additionally, young people who start having sex early tend to miss breakfast because they return home late, he said.

Japan has one of the world's lowest birthrates as more young people put off starting families, finding them a burden on their careers or lifestyles.

The survey also found that nearly 40 per cent of married couples had not had sex in more than a month.

Respondents said they were too tired because of work or found sex to be a pain, according to the study. -- AFP

[This is an interesting study. Now when children don't eat breakfast parents will freak out and wonder if they're having sex.]

Friday, December 26, 2008

New sex law brings problems

Dec 26, 2008

Cambodia faces problems enforced new sex trafficking law

PHNOM PENH - CHANTHA said there was nothing else she could do in Cambodia but become a prostitute.

'If you don't even have a dollar in your pocket to buy rice, how can you bear looking at your starving relatives?' she said.

'You do whatever to survive, until you start to realise the consequence of your deeds.'

Chanta, in her early twenties, was working in a small red-light district west of the capital Phnom Penh several months ago when she was arrested under Cambodia's new sex-trafficking law.

Police nabbed her in a raid and charged her with publicly soliciting sex, fining her nearly US$2 (S$3). Then, Chanta claims, the arresting officers gang raped and beat her for six days in detention.

Bruises covered her body, but none of her assailants were brought to court, she said.

The Cambodian government began prosecuting a new 'Law on Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation' in February after years of pressure from the United States to clamp down on sex trafficking.

Since then, authorities have conducted brothel raids and street sweeps, but rights groups complain the new law has in many ways worsened the exploitation of women.

'The law allows police of all levels to arrest and punish sex workers,' said Mr Naly Pilorge, director of local human rights group Licadho.

'The sex workers are arrested to police stations and rehabilitation centres and then they are abused.'

More than 500 women were arrested for soliciting sex in the first nine months of 2008, according to anti-trafficking organisation Afesip, with many of them forced into rehabilitation centres.

Rights groups say the new law makes women easier prey for traffickers, and could increase rates of sexually-transmitted infections as prostitutes stop carrying condoms out of fear they will be used as evidence against them.

They also allege that detainees are regularly abused at the two rehabilitation centres controlled by Cambodia's ministry of social affairs, Prey Speu and Koh Kor.

Koh Kor has the added grim reputation of being on an island which was the site of a prison and execution camp under Cambodia's murderous 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime.

Despite Chanta and others testifying to instances of rape, beatings and extortion at the hands of police in the rehabilitation centres, authorities have repeatedly denied the abuses.

Major General Bith Kimhong, director of the interior ministry's anti-trafficking department, said he does not believe anyone has been abused under the new law because he has received no complaints from victims.

More than 100 people were arrested this year, as human trafficking prosecutions increased by 50 per cent, Bith Kimhong said.

The raids on brothels and streetwalkers proved a commitment by the government to end sex trafficking, he said, vowing they would continue.

'We'll continue to cooperate with local authorities to enforce the law,' General Bith Kimhong said.

The new law is one of several moves by the Cambodian government over the past year to show that it is cracking down on sexual exploitation.

In March it imposed ban on foreign marriages amid concerns of an explosion in the number of brokered unions involving South Korean men and poor Cambodian women, many of whom were allegedly being set up for sex slavery.

There have also been a string of arrests of alleged foreign paedophiles, as Cambodia seeks to demonstrate sex tourists are not welcome.

Ms Pich Socheata, deputy governor of one Phnom Penh district, leads 'clean-ups' of prostitution on the streets but said she empathises with sex workers.

'They are female and I am too, so I do understand no girls want to do that job. But we are only practising law,' she said.

But Ms Keo Tha, a staff member at sex workers' rights group the Women's Network for Unity, says many more Cambodian women are still being forced into prostitution as jobs dry up amid the global financial crisis.

A more sensible law, she said, would legalise prostitution.

'We are sandwiched right now - we are oppressed by the police, the law and rising living costs,' she said. -- AFP

[The tyranny of morality. It's easier to make laws than to make things better. Easier to eradicate immorality, than to eradicate poverty. The social worker is proposing a pragmatic solution. But that is just a stop gap measure. But at least it eases the abuse and exploitation of the poor beyond what they are already suffering.]

Leo & Kate reunite

Dec 26, 2008

Titanic duo DiCaprio and Winslet sail again

LOS ANGELES - THAT pesky iceberg kept Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet from growing into an old married couple in Titanic.

They finally get to test-drive a long-term relationship in Revolutionary Road, and the two close friends really nail the whole love-and-marriage thing.

Lies. Distrust. Infidelity. Titanic shouting matches to rival George and Martha's in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? After playing new lovers in a doomed romance aboard Titanic, DiCaprio and Winslet had a great time tearing into each other as spouses in a sinking relationship in Revolutionary Road.

'We very much took advantage of our friendship and our relationship for this film,' DiCaprio said in an interview alongside Winslet. 'When I read the script, I thought, look at these scenes, and I'm imagining Kate doing it with me and being able to push each other as much as we possibly could.

'That gave me immediately a desire to say, 'OK, I can't wait for these sequences to start. I'm really going to give it to her, she's really going to give it to me.' And I know the fact that she's such a good friend of mine, we know each other so well, we know that we could push those boundaries, because we intrinsically know we have the best intentions for each other. So there's no weird, hidden ego.

'There's no hidden anything. It's two people just trying to do their best and just pushing each other.'

Revolutionary Road casts DiCaprio, 34, and Winslet, 33, as Frank and April Wheeler, a couple suffocating amid the blandness of 1950s American suburbia who hope to resurrect their crumbling marriage by moving to Paris with their children.

Directed by Winslet's husband, Sam Mendes, Revolutionary Road calls on the actors to quarrel savagely right from the film's opening moments.

It was an interesting challenge for Winslet and DiCaprio, who became close chums on the arduous Titanic shoot and cannot recall ever raising their voices to each other.

'People would say, 'Oh my gosh, you guys are such good friends. Did you ever, like, fight?' And we really would have to stop and think about it and realise that we hadn't,' Winslet said.

After 1997's Titanic, the biggest modern blockbuster with US$1.8 billion (S$2.6 billion) at the box office worldwide, Winslet and DiCaprio knew they had to choose carefully if they were going to pair off again on-screen.

'We couldn't not realise that the elephant in the room was that we had done this film Titanic, which happened to be the most successful movie of all time,' DiCaprio said. 'To try to recreate anything close to that would be a mistake. It's important for me and for both of us to not make it look like we want to become sort of a couple that revisits things.'

In a haughty British accent, he jokingly added: 'Well, they enjoyed that first performance, let's give it to them one more time, darling. Just like the old days.'

Although both felt it was just a matter of time before they teamed up again, it took 11 years before they were back on-set together.

'As the years were going by, the idea of working together again, I was craving it more and more,' Winslet said. 'Very selfishly, I felt it has to be the right thing, because I want to be on the set with him every day. I want to spend as much time with him as possible. It wasn't about equal roles, even. It was, I want to bleed that experience dry. I really do, because I know what's there to be had, and anything less than that wouldn't have seemed as special.'

For all the rewards Titanic brought, Winslet got an Oscar nomination, DiCaprio didn't. They hope Revolutionary Road might change that.

DiCaprio said he liked the idea of both scoring Oscar nominations this time because 'I'd just like to hang out with her.'

'I feel the same way,' Winslet said. 'I feel I couldn't have played April without Leo. I absolutely couldn't have done it. So it would feel extremely strange if I was there without him. It just wouldn't make sense somehow.'

Winslet has five past Oscar nominations; DiCaprio has been nominated three times.

With an acclaimed performance in the Holocaust-themed drama The Reader, Winslet also has a shot at a supporting-actress nomination this season.

If she got two nominations and lost both, Winslet would become the Oscar record-holder among actresses for most nominations without a win. Deborah Kerr and Thelma Ritter now have the record with six nominations each and no wins.

Among actors, Peter O'Toole has had eight nominations without winning, while Richard Burton had seven without a win.

Winslet bluntly acknowledges that she wants an Oscar.

'I can't deny it would mean a huge deal. Whether that's going to happen ever in my life, of course, remains to be seen,' said Winslet, who also shrugs off the prospect of becoming the all-time also-ran among actresses at the Oscars.

'I'm a very good loser. I've actually got it down, I think. I have a formula I could sell,' Winslet said. 'I'm 33 years old, for God's sake. I've been there five times before. It's been incredible every single time, and I'm nothing other than just genuinely amazed and truly, truly grateful to have had those moments in my life.'

DiCaprio wants more for his co-star, though, answering candidly about whether Winslet should take home an Oscar.

'Absolutely,' DiCaprio said. 'Long overdue.'

'Ditto,' Winslet said of DiCaprio. 'Dit-to.' -- AP

[I'm not a fan of Leonardo. I didn't watch Titanic. And I really don't care much about either person. But I do like to read about nice things. And this is a nice story to come out of Hollywood. People who respect and love each other. This is a good story. ]

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Recession an aphrodisiac

Dec 24, 2008

NEW YORK - NEW Yorker Andrew Bradley is doing his bit for anti-recession stimulation - and not just the economic kind.

'I bought lingerie for my girlfriend,' Bradley, 31, proudly announced as he exited fancy intimates store The Little Flirt in Manhattan clutching a tiny pink bag.

'And he didn't spare on the cost, I can tell you,' added Bradley's shopping companion and fellow writer Terry Cirlin.

Experts say growing numbers of Americans, like Bradley, are defying consumer gloom to spice up their love lives, making the so-called pleasure industry one of the few retail sectors to end the year with a smile.

Places like Little Flirt - home to the $3,250 (S$4,703) Little Platinum Eternity Diamond Vibrator - seem immune to the fears gripping other retailers.

Lingerie empire Victoria's Secret stuck its tongue out at the recession by parading a five million dollar jewel-encrusted bra in November, then opening a big flagship store in New York this month.

At Babeland, an upscale sex shop with three New York outlets, vibrators are practically buzzing off the shelves.

'Sales are up seven per cent in the last months in stores and on the website compared to the last three months of last year,' said Babeland co-founder Claire Cavanah.

One vibrator, the pink and white, $109 Gigi, 'did so well we ran out', she said.

Condom kings Durex reported $19 million in US sales for November, up on $18 million last year, a performance that must make other retailers, many of them deeply in the red, sick with envy.

The economic logic behind this bedroom boom is simple.

'At a time of a recession people tend to stay in. They do date-night in. Maybe they don't go out to dinner so much. And when you're at home, around the home fire, one thing leads to the other,' Jennifer Grizzle, a spokesman for Durex, said.

'The condom business is recession proof.' But there is another, more romantic cause for recession sex.

'It's a scary time,' Babeland's Cavanah said. 'People want to connect.'

She recalls the biggest spike in business coming at the start of the economic crisis, right after the collapse of insurance mammoth AIG in September.

'I think that was a fear thing, a nesting impulse. It was the same thing after 9/11. People were afraid and we did really, really well.' For some that urge to reach out takes on a whole extra dimension.

A report in the Financial Times this month detailed how laid-off, or frustrated bankers are flocking to Illicit Encounters, a specialised site for arranging extramarital affairs.

'Since September the number of London-based males in the financial sector registering had risen by nearly 300 per cent,' the FT reported.

That's why entrepreneur Bruce Diller Verstandig is optimistic about a series of websites he started last year selling sex products and sexual health advice.

'As a whole, the health industry is seeing an up-tick in online searches. Sexual disease and malfunctions are riding those coattails,' he said.

'The pleasure industry is going to pull some good stuff out of this recession.'

Of course, with economic problems deepening, not all sex-related retailers feel so hot.

Kim Ibricevic of Eve's Garden, a sex shop in New York, said sales were down and that she is 'lucky' to be in business when so many other retailers are failing.

But she also hopes sex will prove recession-resistant. 'In the sense that this is about an activity you can do at home, yes.' Bradley and Cerin certainly enjoyed their foray among the satin thongs and pricey negligees at The Little Flirt.

'The recession means there are some things, like electronics or whatever, that you won't buy,' Cerin, 40, said.

'What you want now is something close to your skin - something comforting.' -- AFP

[It's not just the recession. Poverty in general is an aphrodisiac. Why else do poor people have so many kids?]

Graft: Death by a thousand cuts

Dec 25, 2008

By Ching Cheong

When patriarch Deng Xiaoping sent Chinese troops into Tiananmen Square to crack down on students demonstrating against corruption in 1989, the message he inadvertently sent was: Corruption is preferred to political reform. His successor Jiang Zemin inadvertently reiterated the same message with his often-repeated slogan: Stability overrides everything.

Corruption remains a big challenge for China's current leaders. During the first decade (1978-87) of China's opening, there were about 200,000 corruption cases; in the second decade, the figure more than doubled. In the 1998-2007 period, it fell to about 300,000, after strenuous efforts by the top Chinese leadership.

In the mid-1980s, officials were still referring to corruption as 'incorrect tendencies'. By the mid-1990s, the Chinese Communist Party's then-No. 2 Li Peng was forced to admit that corruption threatened to wreck both the party and the state.

A comparison of the reports to the National People's Congress (NPC) by the Supreme People's Procuratorate (SPP) at different periods is illuminating.

The SPP's report to the 7th NPC (1988-1992) put the number of officials prosecuted for corruption at 95,818. Its report to the 10th NPC (2003-2008), indicated the number had grown to 209,487. The number of senior officials of provincial and ministerial rank who were prosecuted rose from five to 35. The number of cases involving sums exceeding one million yuan (S$211,000) increased from 81 to 35,255.

Various international corruption indices in recent years have indicated the worsening trend. According to the Transparency International index, China's ranking dropped from 52nd in 1998 to 72nd this year. The World Bank's World Governance Indicators (WGI) showed that the Chinese government's ability to contain corruption weakened from -0.15 in 1996 to -0.66 last year. The scale is from 2.5, being the top score, to -2.5, the lowest.

According to Dr Pei Minxin, a senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment, there was only a 3 per cent chance of corrupt officials being jailed in the 1990s. This made corruption a low-risk, high-return venture.

According to an internal directive issued by the SPP in 1999, procurators had to seek permission from a higher level party committee to investigate a party official.

The cost of corruption has been enormous. Dr Pei estimated that the direct cost could be as much as US$86 billion (S$124.5 billion) annually, or 3 per cent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP). A joint report by the Chinese Academy of Science and Qinghua University put the figure much higher - from 0.8 to 1.2 trillion yuan, or 13 to 16 per cent of GDP.

According to a Commerce Ministry research institute, some 400 corrupt officials have fled overseas over the past three decades with more than US$50 billion. Small wonder that the 'error and omission' item in China's balance of payments account has widened to a staggering US$16.4 billion last year. That's no rounding error. The Bank for International Settlement has suggested that much of it consists of illicit capital flight.

There are other costs to the Chinese economy. For example, due to the practice of buying and selling official posts, the size of government keeps swelling despite periodic trimming exercises. Currently, there are about 46 million government officials, and the population-to-officials ratio is running at an all-time high of 26:1. In 1998 and 1988, the ratios were 40:1 and 67:1, respectively.

The indirect costs of corruption are incalculable.

First, it has seriously compromised the CCP's prestige.

Second, corruption has hampered sound governance. China has remained in the bottom half of the World Bank's WGI throughout the past 30 years.

Third, corruption has widened the income gap. Professor Chen Zongsheng of the Centre for Studies of Political Economy at Nankai University, in Tianjin, has shown that corruption had exacerbated income disparities. In the decade after the 1989 crackdown, the Gini coefficient rose from 0.34 to 0.41, reflecting a widening income gap. Corruption alone contributed to 9.32 per cent of the bigger gap.

Fourth, corruption has increased the risk of social instability. Last year, Dr Hu Angang, director of the Research Centre for National Conditions at the Chinese Academy of Science, identified six factors contributing to growing social instability in China. He found that corruption was the second most important factor, after mob unrest.

Dr Pei has rightly warned: 'Corruption has not yet derailed China's economic rise, sparked a social revolution or deterred Western investors. But it would be foolish to conclude that the Chinese system has an infinite capacity to absorb the mounting costs of corruption. Eventually growth will falter.'

Better some business failures than to cut CPF

Dec 25, 2008

ANY cut to the employers' Central Provident Fund (CPF) contribution rate to give temporary relief is not justified by the facts, now and in the foreseeable future. The Straits Times should like to say 'forever', but only a healthy respect for the curvature of the horizon restrains us. What is known thus far is that the more distressed economic conditions get, the greater must be the mandated social protection for Singaporeans, not less. As it happens, this comes only from the CPF, not just to facilitate home purchases but also for paying large medical bills and providing retirement income. At current cumulative rates, the Minimum Sum will already fall short of projected need for more and more retirees as Singaporeans' lifespans lengthen.

Working people will be considerably cheered that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and former NTUC chief and People's Action Party chairman Lim Boon Heng have both discounted CPF reductions as a means of averting mass business failure. Mr Lee stated his position to Singaporean media late last month, while in South America for the Apec conference. In the brief period since, employment prospects in industrial nations as well as the outlook for big business have darkened further, though not precipitously. Both the PM and Mr Lim took the precaution of adding the obligatory qualification, 'for the immediate', to their comments. No matter: The 'no cut' disclaimer is strong enough a message to companies that they have to make much better use of the protections built in over the years, and not clamour reflexively for CPF cuts as a habitual concession from the Government.

The flexi-wage scheme has not been exploited fully as a shortstop. It is notable that firms which have cut or frozen wages to reduce operating costs are the big ones, whereas mid-sized companies which have less margin to adjust to cost pressures have held back. It would be praiseworthy if they have desisted out of consideration for their workers, but no NTUC official will accuse these companies of being callous if they have to cut wages to be viable. All factors considered, the flexi-approach will have failed if the Government has to lower CPF rates in addition to, say, giving tax and rent relief.

Mr Lim described a CPF cut as a blunt tool. It is more insidious than that: Hurting the long-term interests of the entire working population so that some sectors or a number of companies can keep going does not make much sense. It is far less harmful to social calm if non-viable firms are allowed to fail, with some job losses no doubt, than to do irreparable damage to the nation's social security by paring back protections that are quite minimal.

Tracking Santa's sleigh ride

Dec 24, 2008

COLORADO SPRINGS (Colorado) - WHO says Santa Claus doesn't exist? The military personnel charged with being the eyes in the sky are certainly acting like he does - and they've been joined on the Internet by millions of believers.

Even doubters have reason to pause when they hear that the North American Aerospace Defense Command - or NORAD, which monitors air and space threats against the US and Canada - is in charge of the annual Christmas mission to keep children informed of Santa's worldwide journey to their homes.

'They challenge it, but only to a point,' said Senior Master Sergeant Sharon Ryder-Platts, 49, who for five years has been a Santa tracker, taking calls from those wanting to know the location of jolly old St. Nick.

According to NORAD, Santa began his latest flight early on Wednesday at the International Date Line in the Pacific Ocean. Historically, Santa visits the South Pacific first, then New Zealand and Australia. NORAD points out that only Santa knows his route.

Last year, NORAD's Santa tracking center answered 94,000 calls and responded to 10,000 e-mails. About 10.6 million visitors went to the website, which can be viewed in English, Spanish, French, Italian, German, Japanese and Chinese.

NORAD's holiday tradition can by traced to 1955, when a Colorado Springs newspaper printed a Sears, Roebuck & Co. ad telling children of a phone number to talk to Santa. The number was one digit off, and the first child to get through reached the Continental Air Defense Command, NORAD's predecessor.

Colonel Harry W. Shoup answered.

Col Shoup's daughter, Terri Van Keuren, said her dad, now 91, was surprised to hear that the little voice on the other end thought he was Santa.

'Dad thought, 'What the heck? This must be some kind of code,'' said Ms Van Keuren, 59.

Col Shoup, described by his daughter as 'just a nut about Christmas,' didn't want to break the boy's heart, so he sounded a booming 'Ho, ho, ho!' and pretended to be Santa Claus.

Enough calls followed that Col Shoup assigned an officer to answer them while the problem was fixed. But Col Shoup and the staff he was directing to 'locate' Santa on radar ended up embracing the idea.

NORAD picked up the tradition when it was formed 50 years ago.

'If we didn't do it, truly I don't know who else would track Santa,' Major Stacia Reddish said.

The task that began with no computers and only a 60-by-80-foot 60 foot (18-by-24 meter) glass map of North America now includes two big screens on a wall showing the world and information on each country Santa Claus visits. It took off with the website's 1997 launch, Maj Reddish said.

Now, curious youngsters can follow Santa's path online with a Google two-dimensional map or in 3D using Google Earth, where he can be seen flying through different landscapes in his sleigh.

NORAD officials are hesitant to list all the potential sites Santa will visit with certainty.

'Historically, Santa has loved the Great Wall of China. He loves the (Space) Needle in Seattle. He of course loves the Eiffel Tower,' Maj Reddish said. 'But his path is completely unpredictable, so we won't know.' -- AP

[And this is how legends and traditions sometimes just come about. A phone number in a Sears Roebuck Ad is off by a digit and gets to the predecessor of NORAD. The Col answering the boy who called, decides to play along. A mistake becomes entrenched and becomes tradition. And the story continues... how nice. :-)]

Extra sleep reduces heart risk

Dec 24, 2008

CHICAGO - JUST one extra hour of sleep a day appears to lower the risk of developing calcium deposits in the arteries, a precursor to heart disease, US researchers said on Tuesday.

The finding adds to a growing list of health consequences - including weight gain, diabetes, high blood pressure - linked to getting too little sleep.

'We found that people who on average slept longer were at reduced risk of developing new coronary artery calcifications over five years,' said Dr Diane Lauderdale of the University of Chicago Medical Center, whose study appears in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

'It was surprisingly strong,' Dr Lauderdale said in a telephone interview.

Calcium deposits in the coronary arteries are considered a precursor of future heart disease. 'It's a very early marker of future risk,' she said.

Unlike other studies looking at the risks of getting too little sleep, which use people's own estimates of their sleep patterns, Dr Lauderdale's team set out to measure actual sleep patterns.

They fitted 495 people aged 35 to 47 with sophisticated wrist bands that tracked subtle body movements. Information from these recorders was fed into a computer program that was able to detect actual sleep patterns.

The team used special computed tomography, or CT, scans to assess the buildup of calcium inside heart arteries, performing one scan at the start of the study and one five years later.

After accounting for other differences such as age, gender, race, education, smoking and risk for sleep apnea, the team found sleep duration appeared to play a significant role in the development of coronary artery calcification.

Sleep matters
About 12 per cent of the people in the study developed artery calcification during the five-year study period. Among those who had slept less than five hours a night, 27 per cent had developed artery calcification.

That dropped to 11 per cent among those who slept five to seven hours, and to 6 per cent among those who slept more than seven hours a night.

Dr Lauderdale said it is not clear why this difference occurred in people who slept less, but they had some theories.

Because blood pressure tends to fall off during sleep, it could be that people who slept longer had lower blood pressure over a 24-hour period.

Or, it could be related to reduced exposure to the stress hormone cortisol, which is decreased during sleep.

Or it may be some unidentified process.

'It's something of a mystery,' Dr Lauderdale said.

Dr Kathy Parker, a sleep researcher from the University of Rochester's School of Nursing in New York, said the study underscores the role sleep plays in health.

'People think that sleep doesn't matter but clearly it does. Sleep deprivation is a public health problem and studies such as this show how increasing sleep duration can have tremendously positive effects,' Dr Parker, who was not involved in the research, said in a statement.

Dr Lauderdale said her findings should be confirmed by others, but said many studies point to the need for at least six hours of sleep a night. -- REUTERS

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Giving during past downturns

Dec 24, 2008

1 Asian financial crisis in 1997

It was the only time in the ComChest's 25-year history that it failed to meet its goal, raising just $35 million of its targeted $39 million.

'The crisis hit us from out of the blue, and there was no precedent so we did not know how to react,' recalls Ms Jennie Chua, who was then helping to raise funds for ComChest on an ad hoc basis.

'When times are bad, it is more difficult for people to open their wallets because their capabilities are lower or they are keeping cash for their own use, or a combination of both.'

The voluntary welfare organisations it funded had to adjust their budgets and scale down programmes.

2 Sars in 2003

Surprisingly, the outbreak of the Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) virus in Singapore, coming on the back of the global recession in 2001, did not see any dent in takings. The ComChest successfully raised its target of $42 million.

This was likely because it was a short downturn in 2003, spanning no more than five months. At its centre was 'a scary health issue' and an indiscriminating virus which claimed victims from all social and economic backgrounds, Ms Chua notes.

While local businesses were affected during Sars, there was also 'a heightened sense of community and solidarity'.

'Every day, we were hearing sad and heroic stories of lives being lost, nurses and caregivers dying, a man in the street losing his life just because he caught the virus in an elevator.

'When there are heroes, you want to be associated with them. Even if you cannot be a hero like them, you can, through your pocket. So you dig deeper.'

3 Financial crisis in 2008

The ComChest's target for the current fundraising year, which ends in March, is $52 million. So far, it has raised about $30 million.

Ms Chua notes that unlike the solidarity Sars produced, a deep sense of social injustice prevails in this crisis. Ordinary Joes are blaming the greed of Wall Street and the rich and powerful for crippling the economy, and a rift has resulted.

To counter smaller cheques from traditional big donors such as corporations and foundations, the ComChest plans to tap 'the wider public' to meet the shortfall.

But it is an uphill task. It is now working hard to encourage its base of 200,000 Share donors to increase monthly donations.

Ms Chua is hopeful about meeting this year's target. But next year's will be more challenging, she says.

Arabs gave US leaders most lavish presents

Dec 24, 2008

ARAB monarchs led world leaders in lavishing gifts on American leaders last year, especially Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, according to an annual inventory by the US State Department. The gifts go to the National Archives or charitable organisations. Highlights of the gift list:

# Jordan

King Abdullah II gave an emerald and diamond necklace and other jewellery, worth US$151,630 (S$220,000) to Dr Rice.

# Saudi Arabia

King Abdullah gave a ruby and diamond necklace with earrings, bracelet and ring worth US$165,000 to Dr Rice. He also gave an US$85,000 sapphire and diamond jewellery set and a US$10,000 artwork and a tent made of gold to First Lady Laura Bush.

# Abu Dhabi

Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan gave Vice-President Dick Cheney a US$7,500 clock.

# Singapore

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong gave Mr Bush US$450 worth of fitness equipment, including a 'uSurf Wave Action Exerciser' and an 'iGallop Core and Abs Exerciser'.

# China

Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi gave President George W. Bush a US$3,000 gold replica of the Temple of Heaven.

# Japan

Mrs Aki Abe, the wife of Japan's former prime minister Shinzo Abe, gave Mrs Bush two hand-embroidered pillows, a porcelain Limoges box and a Scotty toy valued a total of US$900.

# Vietnam

President Nguyen Minh Triet gave Mr Bush a US$4,500 electric harp with a speakerphone.

# France

President Nicolas Sarkozy gave Mr Bush a US$5,000 bronze statue of a horse.

# Russia

General Peter Pace, the former chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, received a 9mm machine gun (above), with a removable magazine, from Russia's chief of staff.


Singapore Flyer stuck

Dec 24, 2008

Flyer Drama

173 rescued after being stranded in capsules for several hours

By Esther Tan & Carolyn Quek

SOME 173 people were stuck mid-air in the capsules of the Singapore Flyer yesterday, when the world's largest observation wheel ground to a halt because of a technical fault.

The wheel stopped spinning at about 4.50pm and about three hours later the first passengers - five Malaysian tourists - were lowered using rope harnesses from the one of the lowest suspended capsules.

It was about four storeys off the ground.

Five more passengers in two other capsules, about eight storeys up, were evacuated the same way, before repair teams managed to fix the damaged drive unit and restart the wheel.

It started moving again at about 11.10pm.

It took another 30 minutes or so for the remaining passengers to get off the wheel.

Two people were taken off the capsules in stretchers - a 59-year-old woman who was dizzy and a 10-year-old boy who vomited.

Both were taken to the Singapore General Hospital.

A retired teacher who wanted to be known only as Mr Mohammad, 75, was among the crowd of relatives and friends who had gathered below. His wife was stuck in one of the higher capsules.

After he saw some people being lowered by ropes, he said: 'She is 75 years old. How are you going to rescue her? They should have a better emergency plan and act fast, but it looks like they did not do anything for several hours.'

Following the incident, the Singapore Police Force ordered the Singapore Flyer to cease operations pending a full investigation.

'Operations will only be allowed to resume once the Flyer is certified safe,' the statement added.

Singapore Flyer general manager Steven Yeo said power to one of the wheel's drive units was cut off after an electrical fire.

He said that the wheel has six drive units and at any one time can operate with just three. 'So we have 100 per cent redundancy' said Mr Yeo.

But for some reason the fire cut off all power.

Since the $240 million Singapore Flyer started operations in February, it has stalled three times and it was a different fault every time.

Singapore Flyer is working with its contractor, Mitsubishi Heavy Electric, to find out what went wrong, he said.

Rescue efforts were carried out mainly by Dive Marine, a private company hired by Singapore Flyer. But when they realised that they needed more resources, Mr Yeo said that the SCDF were called in.

Throughout the six hours ordeal, Mr Yeo added that passengers in the capsules were never in any danger.

Intercom links and surveillance cameras allowed staff to monitor and stay in touch with passengers.

But not all passengers were happy with how the company managed the emergency.

Australian tourist Anna-Louise Allen, 51, who was stuck with her husband and teenage daughter, said: 'What was scary was that we didn't know what was going on. We kept on pushing the intercom button to ask what was going on, but we were not given sufficient updates.'

Harrowing rope rescue

10 passengers were lowered out of the capsules by rope

By Carolyn Quek , Yeo Sam Jo & Diana Othman

ONE woman cried while she was being lowered down by a rope from a capsule about eight storeys high. Another kept her eyes tightly shut until her feet touched solid ground before bursting into tears of joy.

Ten passengers were put through the harrowing experience of being lowered out of the capsules by rope before the Singapore Flyer started turning again at about 11pm.

The other passengers managed to walk out of their capsules when it reached the platform level.

Although the passengers were mainly adults, there were some babies and also several elderly people, one as old as 75.

Relatives waiting anxiously at the foot of the Flyer told The Straits Times that some of the people stuck in the air had health issues such as diabetes and heart problems. At a capsule near the top, one of the passengers was a pregnant woman.

Before that, the plan had been to rescue all the 173 stuck passengers, even those in the cabins at the top of the 165m-high observation wheel, by lowering them down via rappelling ropes.

Rescue officers were seen gingerly sliding along their way to the capsules along the spokes of the Flyer. They opened the hatch at the top of each capsule and climbed in.

Once the passengers were strapped into harnesses, the capsule's door was opened and they were lowered - inch by inch - to the ground.

Firefighters even tried to move a fire engine as near to the Flyer as possible and extended the long ladder - with two officers on them - to try and reach people trapped in some of the lower capsules.

The ladder was long enough to reach two capsules, but both were empty. The next capsule which held people inside was too high up for the ladder, and the officers ditched the idea.

Ten passengers were winched down before the faulty drive unit was repaired and the wheel started turning again. Each time one landed safe, the crowd cheered.

During the six hours that the wheel was stuck, tensions apparently ran high among the passengers, according to most of the people who spoke to The Straits Times after their ordeal.

Many were demanding to know what was happening when the wheel was stuck but information was not forthcoming from the Flyer staff, they said.

But after the initial shock, those who were stuck began to worry about more practical matters.

Many made requests for food and drinks and rescue workers took these into the capsules.

Some could not hold their bladder and urinated into plastic bags. Some also asked rescue workers to bring them pails to relieve themselves.

One of the trapped passengers, Indonesian tourist Meta Hartono, a housewife in her 40s, said a woman stuck with her in the capsule had to urinate into a plastic bag. 'The woman couldn't wait, so her family members blocked her while she peed into a plastic bag.'

After all the stuck passengers were cleared off the Flyer at around 11.45pm, they were ushered into rooms and a bistro in the building and served snacks and drinks. They were then led outside where taxis took them home. The passengers were also compensated for the rides.

A Russian tourist who was supposed to fly home last night on a 10.55pm flight to Poland missed his flight and is now anxiously trying to catch the next available one to make it home to his wife and nine-month-old son.

Health institute director Denis Masgutov, 25, said: 'In my culture, it's important to spend time with our family during Christmas. I am worried that I won't be with my family this year.'

A Singaporean civil servant, who wanted to be known as only Salimi, 37, said his sister-in-law was among those trapped. She was very hungry and ate a lot of the pizzas provided by the Flyer staff.

'It will be her first and last time on the Flyer,' he said.

A banker from New Zealand, who gave his name only as S.W., rushed to the Singapore Flyer an hour after his fellow New Zealander sent him a text message to say she was stuck. Both kept in touch via SMS as her cellphone was running low on battery.

After four hours of being trapped, she sent him an irritated SMS which read: 'The music over the PA system is driving me crazy.',

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Virtual casanovas cash in

Dec 23, 2008

THEY choose their victims via Internet social networking sites and pretend to be cyber casanovas who start showering their victims with virtual gifts such as flowers, jewellery, plants, pets and even cars.

They then exchange photographs and virtual love letters for some time before the casanovas, usually claiming to be rich hunks from Britain and the Middle East, tell their victims they want to get them a real gift as a way of expressing their commitment.

They promise to send cash of between 1,000 pounds (S$2,145) and 2 million pounds for the women to go on a shopping spree.

The only catch is that the women would have to bank in a substantial amount of money, supposedly into the account of a local forwarding company, as processing fee for the parcel containing the cash to be sent to Malaysia.

The forwarding company may even ask for a few payments, citing all sorts of difficulties in getting the package through.

When the woman begins to feel suspicious and questions her 'boyfriend', the e-mail stops.

Police say many women around the country, some holding respectable jobs like doctors and managers, have been victims of such scams. Thousands of ringgit is believed to have been lost.

One example is a case in Johor where a human resource manager in her 30s lost more than RM30,000 (S$12,460).

She befriended a person, claiming to be from Britain, via a social networking site about a month ago.

They exchanged messages regularly and the man told her he wanted to send her 50,000 pounds for her to go on a shopping spree.

The next day, the woman got a call from a person, claiming to be from a forwarding company, saying she needed to bank in RM4,000 for the parcel to be delivered.

They continued to ask her for money - totalling RM30,000 - over a few days, giving various excuses including exchange rate and other expenses.

The woman suspected something amiss and when she questioned her boyfriend, he did not reply her e-mail.

She then lodged a police report.

Bukit Aman commercial crime investigations director Comm Datuk Koh Hong Sun confirmed there were many cases of cheating not just via the Internet but also through SMSes.

He advised people, especially women, to be careful when asked to transfer money to those they meet online.

'We are checking to see whether local syndicates are working with overseas ones,' he said. -- The Star/ANN

[Fool and money soon parted.]